Susan J. Demas: What did Michigan get out of the presidential primary circus?

 Democratic debate spin room, March 6, 2016/Susan J. Demas

Democratic debate spin room, March 6, 2016/Susan J. Demas

This column ran in Dome Magazine.

The presidential circus has finally packed up and left Michigan for greener, vote-rich pastures like Ohio and Florida. So what did we really get out of two debates, dozens of candidate events and endless TV ads?

Well, for one thing, big, contested elections are a nice –– albeit short-lived –– shot in the arm to certain sectors of Michigan’s economy. That’s something I’m conscious of as a business owner. I know most people don’t care, however, as they’re tired of enduring traffic jams from candidate rallies and annoying commercials.

It is worth noting that TV and radio stations, newspapers and online publications reap the benefit of ad dollars flowing into Michigan. And our hospitality industry sees a spike in business as candidates, surrogates and staff barreling through the state enjoy our many fine restaurants and hotels.

Beyond the economics, Michigan was picked to host debates for both parties, something that happens too rarely. The debates presented an opportunity to focus on critical Michigan issues, as I wrote last week. That was all the more important as Gov. Rick Snyder, who’s been hobbled by the Flint water crisis, wasn’t able to be Michigan’s champion and talk to the national media about issues (at least the ones that top his agenda).

There’s no shortage of problems facing Michigan. In a column last week, I just listed a few timely ones that I wanted to hear more about from the presidential hopefuls: The Flint water crisis; Detroit Public Schools; jobs, manufacturing and income inequality; and gun rights in light of the Kalamazoo mass shooting.

The good news is that both debates did mention these topics (the GOP debate didn’t mention Kalamazoo, specifically). And no, I won’t take credit. Anyone following politics recognizes the significance of these issues in Michigan.

But the bad news is that Republicans only spent about seven minutes on Michigan issues at their March 3 debate in Detroit. Frankly, they could have devoted an hour to them, and no one would have remembered. That’s because Donald Trump stole the show with this unprompted declaration at the beginning of the debate:

“He [Marco Rubio] hit my hands. Nobody has ever hit my hands. I have never heard of this. Look at those hands. Are they small hands? And he referred to my hands, if they are small, something else must be small. I guarantee you there is no problem. I guarantee.”

Once the GOP frontrunner threw down the gauntlet over his manhood, that was it.

That netted far more TV coverage than Rubio defending Snyder on the Flint crisis or his impassioned denouncement of gun control. Nobody remembers John Kasich proposing bundling federal programs to better help Detroit Public Schools. And even Ted Cruz blaming the exodus of manufacturing jobs on “left-wing” Democratic tax policies got short shrift.

There was far more substance than style at the Democrats’ March 6 debate in Flint. But it was probably still overshadowed by Trump’s hands soliloquy (which will, no doubt, go down in history as being on par with Lincoln’s “Gettysburg Address” or Nixon’s “Checkers” speech).

The first 20 minutes of the Dems’ debate was all about Flint, as well it should have been. Flint Journal Editor Bryn Mickle held the candidates’ feet to the fire about their commitment to the city, demonstrating why having a Michigan journalist serve as a moderator is so valuable.

Hillary Clinton brought up the “mold and rodents” in DPS buildings, unprompted, before being pressed about the issue in more detail later on in the debate. In response to being asked about Michigan losing 230,000 manufacturing jobs in recent years, Bernie Sanders took the opportunity to hammer Clinton for backing NAFTA.

And one of the most emotional moments came when the father of 14 year old Kalamazoo shooting victim Abigail Kopf asked the candidates about solutions to the gun violence epidemic, beyond rhetoric about mental health and background checks. That produced an enlightening exchange in which Sanders declared he wasn’t about ending gun manufacturing in America. That won him praise from the National Rifle Association, which isn’t particularly helpful in a Democratic primary, but the questioning helped sharpen contrasts between the contenders.

I won’t argue that turning the spotlight on Michigan issues defined our election’s results, especially as Trump’s vulgarities dominated headlines. But it was good for our state and good for democracy. And maybe that’s all we can ask for.

Susan J. Demas is Publisher and Editor of Inside Michigan Politics, a nationally acclaimed, biweekly political newsletter. Her political columns can be found atSusanJDemas.com. Follow her on Twitter here.